Murder in the Bookshop (1936) by Carolyn Wells

Wells is always someone I remember as the writer who named a mystery novel Raspberry Jam. Good taste in jam flavours, but odd at title naming nevertheless. Then again since she managed to write 82 mystery novels between 1909 and 1942, I think she can probably be forgiven for running out of more conventional titles to use. Wells was inspired to write mystery fiction, having read Green’s That Affair Next Door (1897), (a very important book in the making of the genre), and during her own life time her work was popular and lucrative. This and other fascinating nuggets of information can be found in the introduction to this reprint, which has been written by the highly esteemed Curtis Evans.

It doesn’t take too many pages for this bibliomystery to arrive at the bookshop, (which incidentally is a fictionalisation of a real life basement bookshop that Wells loved). Philip Balfour and his librarian have broken into John Sewell’s bookshop, on the hunt for some specific titles. But then the lights go out, the librarian is chloroformed and when he wakes up he finds his employer dead on the floor with a skewer in the heart… Of course when he has to explain all of this to the police, they are somewhat sceptical of his story and his name soon joins the top of their suspects list. It doesn’t help that he was madly in love with Balfour’s wife and that his feelings were returned. It also doesn’t help that a very expensive and rare title has been stolen from Sewell’s shop. The body count doesn’t stop there either and the reader also has an unusual locked bathroom murder to contend with as well. Good job Fleming Stone, private investigator is called in to solve the case.

Overall Thoughts

A bit like Wells’ sometimes taste in book titles, the plot to this tale is unusual to say the least. It is full of varied incidences to keep the reader engaged and puzzled as to how things will turn out. We have anonymous notes, ransom notes, we even have … wait for it… book kidnapping! Whilst the identity of the culprit is quite easy to spot after a while, the motives for their deeds and even the way they are finally caught, are indeed strange, (need to find a new word for unusual after all). Freeman Wills Crofts was the king of alibis, John Dickson Carr was emperor of the locked room mystery and for me Carolyn Wells is Queen of Oddness!

Whilst her plotting choices are very bold, (after all she selects a very dramatic conclusion to the case), I think her writing style does hold some subtleties. For instance in the opening line we read of the victim that he ‘was a good man. Also, he was a good looking, good-humoured and good to his wife. That is. When he had his own way, which was practically always.’ As to the suspects you do have to laugh at their initial approach to not cooperating with the police. Questions about what they were doing are seen as questions besmirching their personal honour. Sewell equally doesn’t want to reveal the name of the book stolen, which does beg the question of how he expects the police to find it. Eventually we reach this line: ‘We are keeping nothing back from the police […] but we don’t want their men who are still here to get information ahead of time.’ Thankfully Fleming Stone overrides such sentiments and for the majority of the book the suspects behave with a little more common sense. The book collecting milieu is wonderfully recreated in the book, making you feel Wells used her own experiences as a book collector to influence it.

So all in all quite a good read and most definitely a different one. Ideal for those who love bookshop themed mysteries and for those who want to sample something off the beaten track when it comes to mystery fiction, yet not so off the beaten track that it stops resembling a mystery novel at all. For all the plot events, Wells keeps the narrative together and despite the outlandishness of some of the incidences, the story does not begun unstuck. No mean feat.

This reprint also includes the short story, ‘The Shakespeare Title-Page Mystery’, which was originally published in 1940 in The Dolphin.

Rating: 4/5

Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)

7 comments

  1. I have the Black Heath edition without the short story, but regardless, it sounds like a good detective novel. Just one question: is this really a locked room mystery? I have read conflicting things and Murder in the Bookshop isn’t mentioned in Locked Room Murders.

    Anyway, thanks for the enticing review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • To a degree it is. It is the second death which is the pertinent one. Without trying to give too many details away the victim’s demise is ensured by them being locked in a given space, yet the way they are locked in to that space is irregular. As to opportunity, there are further locked doors involved, if the other locking process occurred at a specific time otherwise it could have been done at another point when there was more access. These locked room elements though are quite easily solved by the sleuths though, which is maybe why it didn’t get into LRM.

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  2. How many books by Wells have you read? You really have to sample a lot of her books to realize that while she may be inventive, she’s not a very good detective novelist. Even if she did write the first handbook on how to write a mystery novel she often broke all the rules she instructs people to follow. As a result I’ve been severely disappointed, often to the point of finding her books ridiculous and dismissable.

    Very few of Wells’ “locked room” mysteries really qualify as such. there’s always something at the scene of the crime that discounts making it impossible to access or exit. And she was in love secret passages! I would advise TomCat to be prepared for the worst if he ever attempts to read a “locked room mystery” by Carolyn Wells. I tore her apart in an essay way back in 2011, the first year of my blog. I have yet to find a single mystery she wrote that I would recommend. I prefer her very early books when she displayed her love of parody in the creation of Pennington Wise and his assistant Zizi. They are con artist detectives, a rare combination in the genre. They claim to be ghost hunters and specialists in the occult and investigate crimes that usually involve ghosts, haunted houses, cursed rooms and the like. But really they’re frauds. Zizi is a former silent movie actress and stuntwoman who pretends to be medium but fakes her trances and uses subtle manipulation to trick people into revealing themselves. Penny Wise is a similar con artist. Still, they manage to solve several murders in about eight books. They’re my favorites of her many detective characters. But Fleming Stone — her primary sleuth, the one who appears in the bulk of her novels — bores the hell out of me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just two. The other was The White Alley, which I remember enjoying. I do have some awareness of her weaknesses as a writer, such as her tendency to use secret passages as a solution for locked room mysteries. Perhaps I have missed some of the really bad ones.

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  3. Here’s my latest defense of Wells here:

    http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/2018/02/the-daughter-of-house-1925-or-how-i.html

    My own views of her have evolved soemwhat, and I have read a lot of Wells books. And she’s actually got a wider mystery following than many vintage mystery writers. She even has locked rooms that don’t depend on secret passages! Her writing most definitely varied, but on my blog I have praised Vicky Van, The Curved Blades, The Mark of Cain, Raspberry Jam (more qualifiedly), The Diamond Pin, The Furthest Fury and The Daughter of House

    Liked by 1 person

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